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As befits the romance-centric month of February, Theatre Exile is producing Loy A. Webb’s The Light, an impassioned one-act that goes for a solid 70 minutes of ever-mounting tension. It examines a pair of lovers who cycle through emotional highs and lows on what should be a straightforwardly wonderful night.
After a few years of dating, Rashad, played by Abdul Sesay, decides it's time to ask Genesis, played by Ang(ela) Bey, to marry him. He's anxious to get the proposal just right. Though all over the place at first, he gradually relaxes as Genesis comes home from a tiring day as principal of a charter school in 2018 Chicago.
As the conversation starts up, their immediate chemistry is infectious. They’re clowning each other, and it’s sweet and full of deeply intimate moments from Sesay and Bey. They disagree about the ways people should couch their personal views in their professional lives. Rashad is adamant about intolerance for intolerance, while Genesis, an experienced mediator, argues for minimal volatility in a work environment shared with people who have regressive politics. Rashad's inability to let the argument go is the first of a handful of rocky moments in the scenario. These spats initially soften away in the room's romantic air, but the couple's contradicting views build with increasing seriousness.
Blackness is central to The Light, which explores both its beauty and hardships. The characters celebrate and joke about family, memories, traditions, and culture. Systemic racism, misogyny, and rape culture are all also considered in relation to Black people. The futures implied here for the couple, as well as Rashad’s young daughter, seem simultaneously treacherous and ripe with possibilities.
Time in the form of memories, unspooling from these two 30-somethings’ lives, is a major propulsive device in Webb’s script. Rashad airs past traumas that Genesis seemingly already knows about, while she reveals intense secrets that point out his hypocritical biases. The back-and-forth that brings these skeletons out shows how some (if not most) peoples' principles can be flimsy where perspective is lacking on certain politicized topics.
Sesay's spirited rendering of Rashad is very engaging. He's all over set designer Nick Embree’s clean and comfortable living room, gripping us with a variety of emotions. Bey’s performance has an enveloping quality that increasingly drives up the stakes of the action. Despite unending attempts at getting comfortable in her own home (with help from costume designer Tiffany Bacon), Genesis hardly has a minute to feel good under the weight of all that has happened, all that is happening, and all that could happen. Bey's brilliant physical performance smoothly delivers the viewer into uncomfortable territory.
The Light gets exponentially louder and more intense as it goes on, becoming claustrophobic in its anxieties, with no space for relief by the last 10 minutes. Despite this, and an ending with no definite answer, the cast and director J. Paul Nicholas leave us on a hopeful note.
I enjoy the way this play intertwines love with interrogations of what alienates us from each other. It might feel overly didactic for people who don’t buy into a contemporary wave of identity-centric plays, but if you're interested in and open to conversations on identity and injustice, there's a lot to chew on in The Light.
What, When, Where
The Light. By Loy A. Webb, directed by J. Paul Nicholas. $20-$40. Through February 26, 2023, at Theatre Exile, 1340 S. 13th Street, Philadelphia. (215) 218-4022 or theatreexile.org.
Masks and proof of Covid-19 vaccination are required to attend.
Theatre Exile is an ADA-compliant venue with gender-neutral restrooms.
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